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Dr Hélenè Bilger Street, on 19 November 2001
What is a political scandal? A widely accepted definition by Stephen Bornstein is that it occurs "when important public figures are widely suspected of contravening prevailing standards of acceptable public or private behaviour and often of attempting to conceal their actions through further illegal or deceitful acts as well." The reference to private behaviour is debatable; in France having a mistress enhances rather than harms a politician's reputation. That Mitterrand had a daughter by a long-term mistress was an open secret, but never mentioned in the press.
There have been more political scandals in the last ten or fifteen years, largely because much behaviour that used to be acceptable in politics is now frowned upon.
Traditionally in France bending the rules has been a national sport, and before the 1990s little action was taken and there were no repercussions. Now, that has changed. Cohabitation (one party or coalition in power with a President of a different political leaning) has usually meant that an earlier scandal is revealed when there is a change of parliamentary majority. From 1986 to 2000 most involved one or more of the following: illegal party funding, misuse of public or corporate funds, extortion, or influence peddling. As a result of the Urba Affair, which led to the revelation that parties across the whole political spectrum had set up consultancies to collect funds for election campaigns from local contractors in exchange for contracts, funding became regulated by a series of new laws.
The Press has over the years taken an active part in the exposure of scandals, two of them involving French Presidents. The first was the Bokassa Affair (or "l'affaire des diamants"), broken in 1979 by Le Canard enchaîné and taken up by Le Monde, which alleged that the President, Giscard d'Estaing, had been given substantial gifts of diamonds by ex-Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic. He eventually appeared on television, to deny the value of the gifts he had received, but in 1980 Bokassa himself confirmed their value. Here the Press and the Judiciary were on opposite sides.
Much more recently, in September 2000, came the Méry Affair, in which the Press and the Judiciary have worked together. Le Monde published a transcript of a videotaped confession by Jean-Claude Méry just before he died of cancer in 1999. He was a property developer and unofficial banker to the ruling RPR, Chirac's Gaullist party. He had previously been implicated in an affair concerning illegal invoices for public housing maintenance in Paris, which was being investigated by a judge called Eric Halphen. Méry stated that in the late 1980s companies angling for housing project and other works paid 35 or 40 million francs in cash by devious routes into the coffers of the RPR and occasionally those of other parties. Méry made it very clear that he was working directly for Jacques Chirac, Mayor of Paris 1977-95, but now President of the Republic. Halphen pursued his investigation by summoning Chirac as a witness, but the latter claimed that as President he could not be tried in an ordinary court of law. Facing a barrage of accusations in the Press, he is however no longer untouchable. The Press has played an increasingly important role in the investigation of scandals, starting with the Le Canard enchaîné, Le Point and Le Matin, but given weight by Le Monde. In the Méry Affair, Le Monde has been firmly in the lead. Scandals have now become a mainstream subject for French journalists, whereas in the 1970s they were reserved for the Le Canard enchaîné. Moreover, there is now a clear alliance between the Judiciary and the Press.
Scandals have acted as the spur for change in France and have profoundly affected the way the game of politics is played.
Almost all of the thirty-five to forty people who attended the meeting made contributions to the ensuing lively and witty discussion. Various names were mentioned from both sides of the Channel (Bernard Tapie, Jeffery Archer, Edith Cresson). `Scandals', it was agreed, are an accepted part of French political culture, but the discussion focussed mainly on the wider issues of corruption in local and national politics and government. Examples were quoted, and the view emerged that Britain in this respect was not ethically superior only more hypocritical.